Mercedes-Benz Asks for a Low Standard for Assessing the Merchantability of an Automobile

Click on the “Only Mercedes-Benz” link on the home page of the Mercedes-Benz USA website, and you are presented with a new page with the following title: 

Leadership

120 years later, the legend continues.

So I find it rather funny that in Isip v. Mercedes-Benz USA, LLC, case no. B192382 (2d Dist. Sept. 12, 2007), Mercedes-Benz requested the court to instruct the jury that the warranty of merchantability is not breached so long as a vehicle gets you from place to place in one piece.  Isip contended she experienced the following problems with her car:

The air-conditioning emitted an offensive smell every time it was turned on, giving Isip a headache and making her sister sneeze.  The car made a loud tugging noise when she engaged the gear, and it made a clanking noise when Isip released the brake in reverse.  When the car automatically shifted gears to pick up speed, the car pulled back, hesitated, and then took off like a slingshot.  It also hesitated and pulled back before slowing down.  The engine made a loud knocking sound and there were fluid leaks.  White smoke came out of the exhaust system. 

At the time of trial, Isip’s automobile still had problems with smoke, transmission hesitation, and a clanking noise in the brakes.The trial court refused a request from Mercedes-Benz to add language to the standard instruction (CACI 3210) for the implied warranty of merchantability.  The requested addition was:

The implied warranty of merchantability does not impose a general requirement that goods precisely fulfill the expectations of the buyer; rather, it provides for a minimum level of quality which the law describes as being fit for the ordinary purposes for which such goods are used.  In the case of automobiles, the implied warranty of merchantability can be breached only if the vehicle manifests a defect that is so basic that it renders the vehicle unfit for its ordinary purpose of providing transportation. 

The court of appeal affirmed the trial court’s refusal to give the additional instruction:

[Mercedes-Benz’s] attempt to define a vehicle as unfit only if it does not provide transportation is an unjustified dilution of the implied warranty of merchantability.  We reject the notion that merely because a vehicle provides transportation from point A to point B, it necessarily does not violate the implied warranty of merchantability.  A vehicle that smells, lurches, clanks, and emits smoke over an extended period of time is not fit for its intended purpose. 

Let alone fit to be a Mercedes-Benz!  But what the heck, everyone produces a lemon once in a while.

Given the amount at issue (the car’s purchase price was approximately $47,000 and the judgment for Isip was only $20,000), this case could not have been very cost-effective to litigate through appeal, and initially I was surprised no settlement was reached at the trial level.  Perhaps Mercedes-Benz was using this as a test case for the requested jury instruction.  A decision adopting the requested language would have given automobile manufacturers a significant advantage in future suits.